Traveller safety and common scams in Egypt explained
We were comfortably tucked into our hotel room beds in Cairo when we heard the news. The news no one ever wants to hear when they are on a trip that many have already deemed ” too dangerous”.
“Bomb”. “Terror attack”. “Cairo”. “Near the Pyramids”.
We had left the Pyramids of Giza just hours earlier and only just jumped on the internet to update our first photos. An epic moment in the kids lives that I was smugly documenting so they could show off in front of their friends. Then our phones started beeping.
Hubby and I started texting each other through the hotel walls while the kids slept (of course we couldn’t get interconnecting rooms). We were fine, of course, a little confused but thought first and foremost how concerned everyone overseas must be.
Had we made a terrible mistake taking our children to Egypt? Should we continue on to Upper Egypt – our 2am transfer back through the streets of Cairo only a matter of hours away?
I desperately wanted to come back with a positive beaming report on how the media reports are all a bit of a beat-up – most of the time in the Middle East they are. But for once, I felt the fears and concerns travellers have about Egypt are actually warranted. A bit.
This is part of our Discover the Middle East series – click here to learn more about our personal experiences in Egypt adventures.
Why are there so many safety concerns in Egypt?
And which ones really matter?
I know many of you are keen travellers already with an adventurous spirit and worldly attitude – that’s how you found us! Many of the fears you encounter are actually your reassurances to others rather than your own. So let’s put all the Egypt safety issues into perspective and back it up with some actual numbers and first-hand experiences.
Modern Day Egypt
Egypt is a huge country. A population of 101 million, mostly living within 10 miles of the Nile. It is also a poor country, economically embattled and suffering from a severe decline in a major part of its economy – tourism.
Since the Arab Spring in 2011, the country has seen massive inflation and austerity measures. Although there has been more stability since 2014, the political situation remains incredibly intense and the unpegging of the Egyptian Pound to the US Dollar has brought further pain and poverty – over a third of the country lives below the poverty line.
Tourism suffers not only from the ongoing threat of terrorist activity but the actions of many who target tourists and their spending power. Lack of spending on infrastructure means nationwide, safety standards are far below those you may expect in other countries.
Improvements are touted by the Government then not implemented. Misspending and corruption are rife.
International Government Safety information for Egypt
It goes without saying, you should always check Government advisories as they relate to you both at the planning stage and as you commence your travels. Security warnings for Egypt vary by area so also consider the exact locations you plan to travel to. The situation in Egypt can change rapidly – as we discovered.
These are some of the more popular advisories issued by countries our readers are from:
- US Department of State – Egypt Safety Warning
- Australia DFAT Smart Traveller – Egypt Travel Advice
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office Travel advice for Egypt
- Government of Canada Egypt Travel Advice
- Safe Travel – New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Terrorist activity in Egypt
Most of the fears around travelling to Egypt stem from the heightened risk of terrorist attacks occurring.
The area most likely to be impacted by terrorist activity is Northern Sinai (bordering Israel & the Gaza Strip), but attacks have occurred in the last 5 years within Cairo itself (as we bore witness too) and other tourist areas of the country. Most notably, in July 2017, three foreign tourists were killed and several others injured following a knife attack at beach resorts in Hurghada. Attacks also took place in Luxor in June 2015 and in Hurghada in January 2016, without loss of life. (source: UK FCO)
Dates where terrorist activity and unrest may be more likely
Although not targeted at tourists, there are some localised dates to be aware of where unrest may be more likely (taken from the Government sources listed above)
- January 25, the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution
- The weekend of Orthodox Easter
- June 30 to July 3, the anniversary of the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi
- August 14, the anniversary of clearing protesters from Rabaa and al-Nahda squares
- During Ramadan and other religious observances and holidays.
Common Scams and Annoyances in Egypt
Whilst no one can predict terrorist activity, I would say by far the biggest nuisance and spoiler for families travelling to Egypt to be aware of is the touts and scammers.
They were most prolific at the Pyramids of Giza where predictably most tourists flock, but they can be found around pretty much any tourist attraction.
What we actually witnessed at the Pyramids
The only existing Ancient Wonder of the World that you can still visit today, the Great Pyramids ARE Egypt. Iconic, spectacular and renowned as one of the scammiest places on earth.
There is a gated system for tourists to come into the Pyramids plateau, however, locals can freely walk in from the desert side without tickets. Nothing is/can be done about this.
What we witnessed in front of the Pyramids was pretty grotesque human behaviour. The touts were not only harassing tourists to buy their goods, selling things at over-inflated prices and spinning their lies, but they were also harassing one another; shouting angrily, even chasing one another with their camel whips – assumably in turf wars. This was pretty confronting behaviour for the kids to see.
While we should have been listening to our guide, we spent most of our time trying to usher the kids to a safe place to stand and ensuring we had all our valuables with us still. We would only pull our camera out for seconds at a time for fear of it being snatched.
If you want to have your photo taken sitting on or looking at the Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramids of Cheops – the largest of the Great Pyramids), you really have little choice but to run this gauntlet. The situation was pretty similar at Kafre and Menkaure – the two smaller but still enormous structures that make up the Pyramids of Giza.
Your tour guide can assist you only so far in protecting you from these touts. Our guide tells us if he is too outspoken and pushy telling them to go away, they then turn the shouting and violence on to him.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Cairo? Check out this neighbourhood and accommodation guide
A few things you can expect to see at the Pyramids
- Many of the touts wore lanyards around their necks. They were by no means official staff but wearing them to make themselves look official and telling tourists they work for the Government. NOT TRUE.
- If you are clearly there without a tour guide, you are an even easy target for them.
- If they pose for a photo with you, absolutely expect this to be in exchange for baksheesh.
- Exchanging pounds for dollars. Think you’ve negotiated something? Be utterly clear if you are haggling a price if you are talking LE – Egyptian pounds of USD – there is a 18x difference so be clear on this. And remember a tip is still expected ON TOP OFF any final negotiated price.
- Random people will start to explain things to you, or giving you directions to something you already know and you are expected to pay baksheesh for these random facts.
The area is supposedly policed but on what must have been one of their busy weeks of the year, we saw not a police officer in sight as offences blatantly happened in front of us.
Camel rides, horse rides and those iconic pyramid photos
You will be touted EVERYWHERE for carriage rides and camel rides. There is signage on what to expect to pay but this is by no means enforced, and they will find any means possible to manipulate what you think you are getting.
We were told by our guide he had taken us to the “official” camel riding area on the plateau, regulated by the Government. Whether this is true or not…. (seriously we struggled to find any online information confirming this but other foreign travellers were told the same and taken to this exact same place). We were asked to pay I believe it was 630LE (around $35USD) for 5 of us on 3 camels, this included about a 20-minute walk to have our snap taken with the pyramids behind us, plus an extra 3 USD tip.
I am almost certain our guide was taking his cut too, but he was otherwise good and helpful to us all day, actually earning his tip. And most importantly, it saved us the hassle of needing to negotiate with the touts.
A few pointers to deal with the touts
- Learn some very basic Arabic
- “La, Shukran” – no, thank you. You will need this. A lot. Teach the kids too.
- “Khalaas”- Enough! If la shukran is not enough for them to desist
- Goes without saying leave nothing valuable in sight.
- Take care with your camera and phone, do not pass it to strangers to take photos. Trust only your designated guide.
- Only buy tickets for ANYTHING from the marked ticket office. The official issued tickets for sites are very clearly marked with a holograph.
- Use the regulated camels for a slightly less onerous experience.
- Take a pre-paid tour option with driver and guide – even if you’re otherwise independent travellers.
You can read more family experiences on dealing with the Pyramid touts and safety in Egypt in this article by Carpe Diem Our Way travelling with 2 children in 2017 and this recount by Bring the Kids from 2016 travelling with 4 children.
Our reader Ashley from Boston was also in Egypt last December with 2 children, though she felt quite differently and shared her experience with us:
Yes, we were constantly asked to buy junk, and were frequently asked for bribes, but we avoided eye contact and taught the children to say “no thank you.” The bribes, while I could not handle them if I had live like that daily, seemed like they made a huge difference to the men accepting them and provided us with some incredible experiences, being the only people in the Giza pyramids for $9, going into parts of tombs roped off or getting suggestions of great photos from locals. We felt very safe, I love taking photos and bought my nice SLR camera with me and never once worried about having it stolen. We found the Egyptian people warm, welcoming and so appreciative for tourism dollars. I would go back in a heartbeat
Other annoyances families may encounter in Egypt
- Those with blonde-haired littles will know this – head touching, even cheek pinching and kissing is rife. We got off lighter than we have in other locations but it really irritates my kids now and they give the evil stare usually before I need to intervene. Again, use a firm “Khalaas” if it’s getting too much.
- We’ll discuss traffic more below, but simply trying to cross a road with kids is like mission impossible. Even if you find a safe crossing point don’t assume everyone will stop, use extreme caution.
Tipping for good service
On the flip side to all the annoyances, there are plenty trying to do the right thing and earn an honest living. When a job is done well, a tip or “baksheesh” is not only appreciated but very much expected.
Problem is, some will flip this gratuity element on its head. Even when a price is agreed and you round it up with a tip, the hand may very well shoot out for more, pleading about their family to feed etc. It’s no doubt true but underhanded and feels wrong.
Medicines and Health Care in Egypt
We were lucky not to need a doctor during our trip, but for the record, you can get a doctor on board a cruise ship and at major hotels. We did not test the public health system!
See also: Health news from WHO
We did need to visit a pharmacy in Luxor where no English was spoken (You will find more shop staff do speak some English in Cairo). Our tour guide helped us interpret what we needed with the pharmacists and they were happy for us to open up instructions on over-the-counter medicines to read in English.
We took insect repellent with us but in the winter never found a need for it – this may be different in the hotter summer months. Likewise, we had little need for sunhats and sunscreen in winter but I would strongly suggest this in the summer months along with keeping up your hydration, lip balm.
The other thing that came everywhere with us was sanitizer, tissues and a few loose coins to pay for toilets.
We thankfully had no diarrhoea – aka “Pharaohs Revenge” in the family (for once) but strongly suggest packing both Immodium for emergencies and rehydration salts.
Do not drink the local water! Our hotels and cruise boat made this clear, the water is OK only for washing but not drinking. Even teeth washing you are recommended to use bottled water. A good hotel should provide this, otherwise, it’s fairly inexpensive to by bottled water. Check the seals are intact.
We were not served drinks with ice cubes, but as a precaution, I would always request NOT to include ice.
One thing you absolutely must pack for Egypt is your Travel Insurance – World Nomads are experts in Middle East locations that other insurance companies may not touch.
Other challenges and circumstances to think about in Egypt
Driving in Egypt
This is one country we didn’t even contemplate self-touring. The roads are horrific. (We are still tossing up whether the Egyptians or the Lebanese are the world’s worst drivers).
That said, all our bus drivers were fabulous. We felt ultra-safe in our minibus in their capable hands as they expertly navigated the local traffic. Taxi’s on the other hand…
We are just getting out of the car seat phase, but do note if you’re using car seats or boosters, there is every likelihood your vehicle may not have seatbelts to attach them.
We did well our first few days in Cairo where the traffic was by far the worst. Our minibus had seatbelts for all, but subsequent minibuses we took in Luxor and Aswan, the car seats had covers on making the seatbelts inaccessible.
We did bring our bubblebum booster for the youngest as its the smallest folding car seat we had but without the seatbelt it was useless. He was unwell during this time and spent most of our trips lying on my lap. Luckily, the vehicle never reached speeds where I felt this was a danger. Had we been on open highways I would have been a lot more concerned and insisted they get the seatbelts out.
Remember even if you’re travel agent is guaranteeing you safe seating, in reality, you can bet they have little control over what vehicle you will be getting on the day. Unless you are booked on a large tour group where the coach is installed with seatbelts, there’s a fair degree of pot luck. If this is a deal-breaker for you, you may want to wait until children are beyond car seat age at least before considering a trip to Egypt.
Air safety in Egypt
One of the quickest and easiest ways to move around internally in Egypt is by air. Other than some small charter services, your commercial choice is Egypt Air. It’s fair to say over its nearly 90-year history it has a less than stellar safety record with a string of crashes and hijackings to its name in recent decades.
Without going into all the gory details (You can read their safety record here), we found the service aspects at least of Egypt Air to be perfectly acceptable for the two short, 1-hour internal flights that we took.
At the airports, security screening is pretty stringent. Domestic or International expect your bags to go through at least 2 rounds of screening. We saw the most security at Aswan where literally everything had to come off (shoes, belts, electronics out, no water bottles) and be screened, separate lines for men and women. It seemed slightly chaotic at the time, but one can only assume it’s because they are being thorough despite the chaos.
Rail safety in Egypt
As with air safety, trains in Egypt have a poor record. Lack of investment in maintaining the 9,570 kilometres of rail track and equipment is said to be to blame, along with lack of signalling and level crossings.
Whilst most accidents reported in the past decade seem to be around commuter services near Cairo, it is something to bear in mind – fatalities over the years have been drastic, though mostly locals, not tourists.
Is the Cairo to Aswan overnight train safe for families? Look, its up to you. I have only travelled on this service as a single many moons ago when dirty toilets and poor sleep were just part and parcel of backpacker style travel. With kids, I would not be keen to repeat the experience, but it would be exactly that – an experience.
Prices for the train no longer vary too significantly from air travel (as we looked in late 2018 the plane was cheaper for our family of 5), and I would put the train ahead of a bus on the poorly maintained highways as far as safety is concerned.
If you are contemplating the train, read up here on some interesting facts to do with tourist ticket pricing vs local. Apparently, the deluxe services are to improve passenger safety. You decide.
Boat Safety in Egypt
There are several different types of boat you will encounter on the Nile.
Between Luxor and Aswan you will see the large cruise ships operating. Separately, you will also see “ferry” boats, and popular with tourists around Aswan and Luxor is hiring a felucca, on the mercy of the wind.
We never saw more than a handful of people at a time on the ferry boats but be wary of overcrowding.
It’s very unlikely any small vessel you take will provide you with the life jackets. It was suggested to us for taking a small felucca ride around Elephantine Island in Aswan we should take the life jackets from off the cruise boat with us. This was one huge disappointment and frustration for me after raving about everything that was good about the cruise boat; they did not have any child-sized life jackets on board.
I challenged reception over this as in our cabin it says life jackets in our room are only suitable from 32kgs+ (that ruled out all our kids) and child jackets will be issued by staff in an emergency. When we asked to borrow the kids life jackets for our felucca ride we were told there were no kids life jackets on board.
I urge you if you’re on a cruise boat to enquire about this upfront as I would feel much more comfortable in the event of an emergency knowing we had kids life jackets ready.
In terms of other safety features onboard, we did see smoke alarms, sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers. There are very clear cabin notices not to use portable electronic items (they mean things like travel irons, plugging in your ipads to charge is ok) to avoid electrical fires, I can only assume this has caused problems in the past.
Snorkelling and scuba diving in Egypt
Some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving in the world can be found in the Red Sea. To keep yourself safe in this environment;
- Only dive with a registered CDWS instructor
- Check your insurance covers you for scuba diving (many DO NOT!)
- Protect yourself from the sun with both your clothing and wear coral-safe sunscreen
- Don’t fly for at least 24 hours after your last dive.
- Heed warnings listed above on safe locations. Sharm el-Sheikh the resort town may not be a dangerous place itself (including Sharm el Maya, Hadaba, Naama Bay, Sharks Bay and Nabq), but due to many governments banning flights you cannot currently fly to Sharm el-Sheikh.
(We did not cover any of the Red Sea resorts during our current trip so we are basing these recommendations on information we have found from other sources, our Jordan experience and other families who have visited in recent years).
Hot air ballooning in Luxor
One spectacular aspect of visiting Luxor, but unfortunately with a dogged record of safety is hot air ballooning. As our youngest child could not go we opted out of this activity.
Another travel blogging family – Strollering the Globe – did recently undertake this adventure – we will shortly post about their experience here.
So dare we say it, is Egypt currently safe to travel to with kids?
Honestly, the jury is out.
Only you can judge based on current political stability and what will work for you.
Immediately before our trip, I would have said with sensible precautions, the risks were minimal. Yet during our trip of December 2018, a terrorist bomb goes off on a popular tourist route we had just travelled, missing us by only a matter of hours. Yet more proof that Egypt continues to remain politically unstable. Whilst terrorist attacks are unfortunately occurring without warning worldwide, some countries like Egypt are presently more susceptible.
For a country so reliant on tourism, these acts of violence are devastating. This is before you take into account the safety standards of much of the country’s infrastructure.
Please take all the factors we have mentioned here into account, keep your eye on the news, government warning and do your own research prior to booking a trip to Egypt. It is not out of the question, we honestly had a great time with our 3 kids and would do it again.
Travel Insurance for Egypt
It goes without saying that you should book travel insurance before an adventurous trip such as Egypt. If booking via a travel agent they may try to bundle this in for you but make sure you read your policy fine print. Check what activities are allowed (would scuba diving or hot air ballooning, for example, be covered?)
We recommend World Nomads as a good insurer for the Middle East and more off-the-beaten-path destinations.
The important question as to whether you are covered for acts of terrorism depends on your residency at time of taking out the policy, you will need to apply for a quote to check for specifics
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We would be really interested for you to share your thoughts and experiences on Egypt travel safety in the comments. The situation is constantly changing and your thoughts and comments will help shape other people’s opinion on this difficult topic.
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Footnote: We did not spend long in Egypt but have consulted with families who spent several years living in Cairo and travelling around the country to make sure this post is a fair representation. All views expressed are those of the author, based on first-hand Middle East travel experience, exchanging stories with other recent travellers and available Government sources of information at the time of writing January 2019. It is a thorough listing of issues to consider but by no means covers every possible circumstance you could encounter. Please conduct your own due diligence before booking travel and take out comprehensive travel insurance.
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